Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

02 July 2016

The Master

A couple summers ago I watched my first Ozu Yasujirō film. I was getting slightly obsessed with mid-century Japanese film, and for some reason I was watching a lot of them.

Tokyo Story
For me, if a film is in the Criterion Collection, this means I should probably watch it. I don't know how everyone else feels about this collection, but that is what it means to me. When I started watching lots and lots of movies at age 16 or so, I followed the Academy Award nominations. I figured that was the best way to pick and choose which films were important among the enormous collections on Turner Classic Movies and at my local video rental store (we still had mostly VHS tapes back then). But, of course, although the Academy thankfully just invited a huge number of international members to the Academy, the Oscars have usually skewed very American, and so following the Academy as a guide for what to watch has meant missing a lot of things. This is where the Criterion Collection has come in.

And because so many of these films from the Japanese masters are in the Criterion Collection, a couple of summers ago I watched a whole bunch of them: Ozu's Late Spring, Naruse Mikio's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Mizoguchi Kenji's Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu, Ichikawa Kon's Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp, Teshigahara Hiroshi's Woman in the Dunes. All in rapid succession. Ichikawa was definitely my favorite at the time. I loved his camera-work and his anti-war politics, especially.

But in the last two weeks I finally saw Early Summer and Tokyo Story, two Ozu movies from the same period. And I have fallen in love again.

Early Summer
For starters, I should register embarrassment for not having seen Tokyo Story before now - it is frequently named as one of the greatest films of all time. But 2016, apparently, is a summer for making up for these gaps in my film history (I also finally watched Andrei Rublev this summer).  

Tokyo Story recalls Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow or Randolph Edmonds' play Old Man Pete - in which the now-adult children of an old married couple send for their parents to visit but once they're there are annoyed that they need to disrupt the usual way of living their lives. In Tokyo Story, the rural parents also need to navigate the city of Tokyo, its speed and industry and impersonality. Ozu's camera doesn't move very much. These are character and cultural studies, and he expects us to pay close attention and to think about what we are seeing.

I liked Early Summer even better. In fact, Early Summer is basically a perfect movie. In this film, Noriko, a woman in her late twenties who has been focused on her career, is being pestered by her relatives into marrying. But she chooses a husband for herself instead and makes her own path in life. This film spends lots of time with Noriko and her friends, some married and some single, discussing the difficulties of dealing with a husband or being lonely. This is all fun and funny and slightly catty, but the film is also fundamentally about getting older and figuring out what has been chosen for us and how we might choose differently.

Another thing that I really loved about both of these films is the way that the war is constantly present in these characters' lives. In both, there is a missing young man, a brother or husband who has died in World War II. Neither film makes this into a central concern for the characters, but it is always there. One feels this absence palpably. I love this aspect of the movies.

And both of these films have so many great performers. My favorites in both were Miyake Kuniko (so understated and beautiful, especially in Early Summer) and Takahashi Toyo (hilarious in both). But honestly, there are so many beautiful performances in these movies.

In any case I am excited to see more. Ozu was fairly prolific, so I expect there are a lot of superb films out there for me to watch.